Cutting edge science and witch trials

Using the Salem witch trials as an analogy in my last post made me aware of the controversial figure of Cotton Mather, the archetypal superstitious Puritan widely blamed for the Salem witch trials.

Mather was a third-generation New England pilgrim, and so one of the later Puritans, which is partly why the mental impression of a black-clad pinched figure with a wide collar and a stove-pipe hat is belied by his portrait, showing that he looked as much like G. F. Handel as everyone else did at that time. But after Pastor George Burroughs had recited the Lord’s prayer perfectly and been hanged anyway (as the crowd marvelled at Satan’s subtlety rather than revising the theory that witches couldn’t say the prayer), it is said to have been Cotton Mather who sat on horseback, reminded them that Burroughs had been tried by due process, and encouraged the hangings to go on.

Incidentally I’ve been to Salem, and whilst some of the older houses are deliciously reminiscent of the evil and spooky settings for H. P. Lovecraft’s tales, the town’s plethora of New Age shops celebrating witchcraft are as tacky as Glastonbury is over here. Whatever else happened in seventeenth century Salem, it wasn’t the celebration of witchcraft.

There was certainly lethal superstition afoot – countered by many voices calling for rationality. Both had their roots in Europe, where (as I have suggested before) the witch-hunting craze possibly had its roots in the very same magical soil from which science simultaneously grew. But given even a general belief in satanically-mediated magic, New Englanders, remember, lived in close proximity to native Americans whose traditions included magical practices. If your child’s nurse is steeped in sorcery, it is perhaps to be taken more seriously as a “thing.”

Any account of the Salem witch scare, with the benefit of hindsight, marvels at the gullibility of those in leadership positions like Mather. Their superstious presuppositions mistook hysterical, or even malicious, phenomena amongst children for evidence of black magic performed by people otherwise assumed to be of good character, including Pastor Burroughs and many women.

In fact, I’ve come across few figures whose character and actions elicit such disagreement amongst historians as Mather’s. To some he’s the archetypal fanatical religious bigot exposed by contemporaneous sources; to others a voice of moderation and mercy libelled by his enemies. Wikipedia even describes waves of fashion in these assessments, with Cotton Mather being repeatly rehabilitated and then once more condemned, like an executed criminal being shifted every few years between the churchyard and unconsecrated ground.


But we can ignore that controversy, because what I want to draw your attention to here is how particularly in Mather’s case, as well as more generally, profound misjudgement and sound thinking walked hand in hand. That’s a lesson we need to take to heart in our consideration of any leading thinkers today, and even of the humble, but undoubtedly opinionated, writer of this blog.

Theologically, it appears that Cotton Mather overall was a decent and orthodox pastor, educated at Harvard, with a number of sound writings to his credit. What is less appreciated is that he was also a major scientific mind of that place and time, and was hugely influenced by Robert Boyle’s approach to phenomena, and his published writings.

It is interesting that in science, too, Mather was a controversial and sometimes hated figure, but proved in the end to be on the winning side, unlike his involvement with exposing witchcraft.

Wikipedia gives two examples of his science. The first is his observations on the hybridization of maize, which I suppose puts him in a direct line leading to Nobel Prize winner Barbara Mcclintock.

The second example is his championing of smallpox innoculation during a terible outbreak of the disease. We’re talking here not of vaccination, as such, a later development of innoculation by Edward Jenner using the milder Vaccinia organism. Experiments using vaccine from pustules of more mildly affected smallpox cases was the subject of experimentation in Europe at the time, and no doubt Mather had heard of this. But he also heard about it from his slave, who described to him being innoculated in Africa as a child.

This, of course, raises moral issues about Puritan northerners and black slavery… but paradoxially also suggests a relationship close enough for the slave to wish to impart this information, and Mather’s willingness to take it seriously.

Be that as it may, smallpox innoculation is a genuine instance of what is suspected, by some, about MMR innoculation nowadays. For unlike true vaccination, smallpox innoculation carries a small but significant mortality rate. In the middle of a devastating smallpox epidemic, the benefit probably outweighs the risk. But at the time, there were many objections moral, theological and scientific that meant severe opposition to Mather’s attempts to institute a preventive innoculation programme.

As with modern vaccine-scares, there are profound difficulties for family members, especially parents, administering a treatment to a well human being who might die from it. You will have heard people argue that there is a moral difference between nature infecting your child, and your doing so deliberately. That will always remain a real, and difficult, personal conundrum.

But medical theory at the time included categories of treatment both by similarities and by opposites. Because innoculation could not be argued to be either of these, it appeared to go against nature, thus offending both the laws of science and the laws of God. The conclusion from this was not primarily superstitious (“It’s meddlesome and sinful”) but that it couldn’t possibly work, and the person who tries it is a fool.

It would come into the same category as the legendary Pentecostal healer Smith Wigglesworth purporting to heal a baby by throwing it against a wall and kicking it like a football (and there are those who believe, on his biographer’s authority, that he did so curatively). But if your pastor offered to try it on your child, you would be sensible to refuse.

Cotton Mather, however, was willing to buck the intense opposition on the grounds of what he learned from the scientific world, from his slave’s testimony, and from the largely satisfactory outcomes of his pilot study. By his stubborn persistence, it eventually became clear to the people of Salem that innoculation was a major life-saver. Opinion swung round to his side, innoculation accelerated, and the epidemic was stayed, saving hundred of lives.

What is sobering is that Mather’s qualities of being willing to run, in an emergency, with evidence that was far from watertight, against the opposition of equally qualified people and popular opinion, were precisely those that had earlier led him to lead the fight against witchcraft.

In that case, too, he had the weight of intellectual opinion on his side: theologically authorities as eminent as the great Richard Baxter had written on the reality, and social danger, of witchcraft. Mather’s scientific hero Robert Boyle also took withcraft and spirits seriously, if with reservations, and indeed there were serious discussions of the matter within the early Royal Society.

So one has to ask whether, given the disruptive nature of the behavoural phenomena amongst Salem children, which we now treat as mass hysteria, group-think or whatever, it was actually quite rational, and even scientific, for those like Mather to suspect a malign risk to the public good, and hunt down those he had reason to believe were the culprits.

I won’t answer that, because it would take more knowledge of the times and the events to make a judgement, and apparently the historians have been arguing with each other about it for three hundred years. Yet a dispassionate view is that it is not a good thing that innocent people were hanged for a non-existent crime. I would suggest that there were avoidable reasons that Mather got it wrong (such as his dependance on so-called “spectral evidence”, where victims claimed to see spectres of those bewitching them), even though he was by no means a superstious fool – he was later admitted to the Royal Society on the basis of his smallpox work.

The lesson is that academics now, as then – whether theologians in leading seminaries, or scientific members of the Royal Society – can be right in most things, but profoundly mistaken in other areas that matter. The world cannot, and should not wait around for other academics to reach a consensus on whether they are right or wrong, nor trust it blindly even if they do.

In the end it is the public who must judge the truth of educated opinions. As far as I can tell, the Salem witch-hunts were not a result of mob-rule, though I’m sure some of that occurred around executions, as it always has. It appears rather that the pogrom was pushed through primarily by influential authority figures like Cotton Mather – a pastor and a scientist.

Perhaps many of the public were on board at the time because society expects us to trust authority figures like pastors and scientists. But even at the time there were dissenting voices including other authority figures like pastors, and those with less authority like the merchant Robert Calef. But the fact is that within four years, by 1696, public repentance had occurred for the miscarriage of justice – and it was the ordinary people whose assent brought that closure.

Likewise, although public fear and (as it turned out) ignorance led to mass-opposition to Mather’s innoculation programme, it was the people’s wisdom that began to see the beneficial results and give it their approval.

On controversial matters, I suspect that the common people have more good sense in the end than fashionable academics, and we should factor that into our judgements on issues. That, I’m afraid to say, is a conservative rather than a radical position, for in the latter it’s always the minority of visionaries who see the truth and have to impose it on the reluctant masses.

I heard a remark from the recently deceased philosopher and polymath Roger Scruton the other day. When asked what was the value to the world of a conservative philosopher, he replied, “My value is to tell the people that their prejudices [meaning their most basic assumptions] are correct.”

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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